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Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Misfits, Death Grips, The Julie Ruin, Morrissey, and Ween took over Douglas Park

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    Brethren, take a deep breath. Riot Fest Chicago has a home again. Last year was tumultuous, with nobody quite knowing if Douglas Park, a punk-free haven in the Windy City’s southwest side, would suffice after the festival was booted from its beloved home in Humboldt Park. It did, but it still felt wobbly, with buckets of rain and shoes of mud feeding into a general sense of instability. Here’s the good news: 2016 was Riot Fest’s smoothest, most organized outing since its early days at the Congress Theater. Crowds were manageable, lines flew by, and Morrissey actually showed up (30 minutes late, but still). Morale was high.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    That said, something’s changed. Riot Fest’s always anchored itself on a carnival and freak motif that dovetails with the event’s punk roots. In previous years, red-and-white carnival games lined walkways alongside wrestling rings and the rides of our childhood, providing ample distraction for those with weary ears. Now, you’ll see a glowing ferris wheel near the entrance and a vintage car or two, but the carnival experience has been mostly relegated to a dedicated area near the back of the park. What was once a motif is now just another attraction.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Frankly, I prefer the streamlined design; in Douglas Park, there’s no bottlenecks or clogged walkways, making it easy to march from one stage to another. But there’s no denying that character is in short supply. Thankfully, there were enough characters in the audience to make up for it. Where Lollapalooza and Coachella’s crowds have essentially devolved into a collision of crop tops and cultural appropriation, Riot Fest’s arrive in search of kindred spirits, whether that be through studs, denim, or obscure t-shirts. If anyone’s going to appreciate your Throbbing Gristle tank (or, hell, even your Enema of the State tour tee), it’s here. Props also to those brave enough to go off-brand — I’m looking at you, Soulfly jersey.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

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    Because no matter how much Riot Fest continues to expand its programming, it will always be a haven for the freaks, geeks, and scumbags, the nerdy and passionate. Lollapalooza’s great, but no one’s there for the music. At Riot Fest, music is everything, even if much of it suffers under the spectres of our accumulated nostalgia. Still, it’s cool as fuck that over the course of a single weekend you can see hip-hop icons like GZA and Nas light up the same stages as the weirdos in Ween and NOFX, or get misty as Julian Marley honors his father across the lawn and Sleater-Kinney teaches a new generation that Carrie Brownstein is more than “that girl from Portlandia.”

    kaplan cos riot fest sunday misc 1 Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    Dig deeper and you’ll find the acts that have no hits to coast on — the teensy Storyheart and Rebel stages hosted a bevy of promising up-and-comers, from Jess Abbott’s post-grudge throwback, Tancred, to the blissed-out pop of Virginia’s Turnover to the hometown wunderkinds The Walters, whose midday Sunday set in the intimate StubHub Sound Stage was one of the best things I saw all weekend.

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    So, who needs the carnival? Or fashion? Or gourmet concessions? Riot Fest grew so fast that, for a spell at least, it seemed like the music was almost lost in the morass. Last year, Associate Editor Collin Brennan asked where Riot Fest will go next. In 2016, it sorta went backwards. But in doing so, it seemed to rediscover itself.

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    Oh, and The Misfits reunited. Keep clicking if you wanna read about that.

    –Randall Colburn
    Senior Staff Writer


    Too Theatrical For Their Own Good

    Underoath

    “Coming up next is … someone else,” Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin said as the legendary punk outfit wrapped up their Sunday afternoon set. He was referring to Underoath, a post-hardcore band of earnest Floridians whose entire raison d’etre seems stamped on the opposite side of Graffin’s coin. Yeah, their music is heavy as hell, but it’s also grotesquely weepy and super corny, which isn’t helped by the band’s overwrought onstage theatrics. It’s like they’re all battling to see who can spasm the hardest; I’d give the trophy to the band’s keyboardist, who leaps between his kit and laptop like he’s trying to disarm 10 separate bombs. Starting your set 10 minutes late doesn’t help, either, especially when you were inexplicably given 15 more minutes than Bad Religion, who came out on time. –Randall Colburn
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    I (Don’t) Wanna Rock

    Dee Snider

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    “I tried to get my hair to lay back, but it always thinks it’s the ’80s,” Dee Snider observed as he whipped his bleached blonde locks around, entertaining his faithful followers early Sunday afternoon. The Twisted Sister frontman and Strangeland actor was in good spirits, thoroughly enjoying the sun with enough positivity to turn every stewing Misfits fan into a puckish idiot. “When you get a day like this at the end of September, you look above and thank the fucking rock gods,” he exclaimed. “Thank you, rock gods! And thank you, mother nature for not being a cunt!”

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Which is why it felt wrong to rag on Snider’s tired, mediocre, and embarrassing assembly of tunes, but hey, what can you do? When the guy wasn’t curiously covering Nine Inch Nail’s “Head Like a Hole” or stripping down “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into a rote Kindergarten sing-along, he was busy trying to shill his new solo efforts, specifically his latest single, “Rule the World”, which came fully stocked with pandering millennial whoops. Of course, things didn’t get any better when he asked everyone if they’re “against vaginal dryness” or referenced women’s “cooter(s).”

    I wanna … vomit. –Michael Roffman
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    Done Dirtiest by the Storyheart Stage

    White Lung

    “I apologize for this performance. I can’t hear myself at all,” White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way told the audience at the end of their set at the Storyheart stage, a performance mixed so ear-piercingly loud that the singer had to leap down into the photo pit to escape the volume. Barber-Way’s vocals have never been meek, but on record she never yells herself hoarse and occasionally off-key the way she did at Riot Fest. There was something wrong, and the crowd knew it, judging from their lukewarm responses (and a beer can hurled onto the stage). This seemed to frustrate Barber-Way, who usually cuts an authoritative figure, but this time preferred to stride around onstage, sinking to her knees at one point to ignore the criminally small crowd. It was an off night for White Lung, and you couldn’t really blame them. –Karen Gwee


    Better Late Than Never

    Joey Bada$$

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    By the time Joey Bada$$ finally took the stage over 15 minutes into his allotted time, it was clear something was amiss. The beginning of the NYC rapper’s set was plagued with sound issues, for which Bada$$ repeatedly (and publicly) held Riot Fest over the fire during his abbreviated set. Despite this, the rapper (and recent Mr. Robot star) put on a DJ-driven, agitated half hour of the kind of emotionally raw hip-hop that’s made his name; Bada$$ went heavy on material from his 2014 LP, B4.Da.$$, but pulled out a couple of favorites from his earlier mixtapes, including a tribute to the late Capital Steez with “Survival Tactics”. Though this might not have been an all-around ideal set, the crowd was invested (particularly in the late going), and before closing with his new single, “Devastated”, Bada$$ promised more new material in the near feature, which probably means some other, less embattled shows as well. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Curiously Underwhelming For What Should Have Been a Landmark Show

    Motion City Soundtrack

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    When Motion City Soundtrack stepped on the Roots stage on Saturday, they probably realized this was going to be the largest audience any of them would see for a long time. It was their penultimate show — the Minneapolis pop punk band, which would have turned 20 next year, announced they were calling it quits back in March — but there still seemed to be an air of hesitancy. “Lots of emotions up here, I’m trying to keep it together,” frontman Justin Pierre admitted, his clipped banter at odds with the erudite lyrics that diehards have memorized.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    He wasn’t alone. The audience also took a few songs to get into the show: Crowdsurfers only began propelling themselves forward during “LGFUAD”, which kicked off a string of favorites from Commit This to Memory and Even If It Kills Me. Motion City Soundtrack did little wrong, but the set lacked a momentousness you’d expect from their final festival performance. Then again, they probably had their minds on their farewell show at the Metro Sunday night. –Karen Gwee
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    The Sound of Settling

    Death Cab for Cutie

    kaplan cos riot fest saturday dcfc 5 Riot Fest Chicago 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    After a hot, sunny Saturday, the sky softened into a deep, rich mauve as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and his merry band of melancholies welcomed us with a rousing rendition of “I Will Possess Your Heart”. Across 10 minutes, the massive crowd swayed in the warm breeze, savoring how the twilight chill dovetailed with Gibbard’s silken croon. “The New Year” followed and fists pumped. Then came “Crooked Teeth” and something resembling dancing. And then, well, we all started to lose interest.

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    There’s just so little surprise to Death Cab shows these days; Saturday night’s setlist sounded like pretty much every other Death Cab setlist I’ve seen. The best live bands are the ones that keep you on their toes, that entice you to keep coming back with rotating sets of singles, cult hits, and deep cuts. At a Death Cab show, the setlist feels assembled by a Spotify algorithm. It doesn’t help that the band’s never been the most dynamic live act, with the spastic light scheme doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of spectacle.

    Anyone else up for another Postal Service reunion? –Randall Colburn
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    Hardest Enunciations of the S in Illinois

    Method Man & Redman

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Last year, Riot Fest had the Wu-Tang Clan (or at least the primary crew) for a packed, rowdy hour of favorites. Some of those songs came around yet again at the 2016 iteration as Method Man and Redman played a set that leaned heavy on nostalgia, similar to much of the festival’s hip-hop presence on Saturday. From the moment the DJ dropped a medley including “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and other classics, or when Method Man asked the crowd “Do you wanna hear some ‘90s hip-hop for the next hour?” — the game became clear: East Coast sounds, bass-heavy beats, and frequent invocations for the stoners in the audience to identify themselves. The interplay between Meth and Red hasn’t diminished over time, leaving the set’s better performances to their collaborative material (“City Lights”, “How High”), and that interplay slightly elevated a set that was otherwise pretty familiar for anyone who’s ever caught a Wu-Tang Clan gig — or even a solo one. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Whitest Light, Whitest Heat

    Social Distortion

    As Social Distortion took the stage on Friday night, just a few hours remained until the proper 20th anniversary of White Light, White Heat, White Trash, making their stage-closing Riot Fest set something of a victory lap. At times, the low end overwhelmed everything else; the band sounded fine, but Mike Ness’ vocals were coming and going, seemingly due less to any error of his than to the stage’s sound, which was a struggle to hear in various parts of the crowd. That said, their performance was strong overall, playing through all of White Light and even bringing in their beloved cover of “Ring of Fire” for a pleasing closer. While White Light may not have some of the band’s most memorable songs, the snarling return to form that it offered 20 years ago still resonates today. It’s just not possible to hear “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” or “When the Angels Sing” too many times. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
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    Hail to the Trailblazers

    The Specials

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Here’s something special: hearing “Ghost Town” live. Everyone should at least once. And if there’s any reason to go see The Specials in this day and age, it’s to hear that and “Do Nothing” and “Stereotype” and, ya know, the hits. Like it or not, The Specials are essentially a nostalgia act these days; the songs still sound good, but, as happens when you get older and lose key members, the tempos start to lag, and some of that fire just isn’t there anymore. The band’s political spirit still burns, however; midway through the set, frontman Lynval Golding proudly proclaimed his support of Black Lives Matter, causing a few crust punks in my vicinity to mutter obscenities and wander off. But this was mostly a chance to sway in the afternoon sun and sing along with songs that meant the world to you when you were young. –Randall Colburn


    Shut Up And Play (Other People’s) Hits

    Me First and the Gimme Gimmes

    As late-day bands on a festival Sunday go, you can’t get much more reliable than Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The long-tenured punk covers band offer a simple, easily digestible pitch: “Come see members of Swingin’ Utters, NOFX, Lagwagon, and more sing the pop standards of yesterday.” On Sunday, those included but weren’t limited to: George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and many more. And while busting out R. Kelly covers in Chicago might bring a few more collar tugs than it used to, their rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” is every bit as snottily fun as ever. Me First are a great, quick festival diversion, and probably less corrosive to your overall health than another funnel cake. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Know Your Audience

    Juliette Lewis and the Licks

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    For her early Sunday afternoon set with her backing band the Licks, singer and actress Juliette Lewis chose to channel yet another type of performer, one who must have served as some sort of spiritual blueprint to Riot Fest: the late, iconic stuntman Evil Knievel. Not only did Lewis perform in an Evil-esque stars-and-stripes-adorned jumpsuit, but she did all of her own stunts, too. They included the physically-flashy — strutting, sashaying, and tumbling headband-over-boots while crowd-surfing — as well as the setlist-flashy, playing to the audience’s brand even further by closing with supercharged covers of “Proud Mary” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. –Steven Arroyo


    Party Through the Hangover

    Diarrhea Planet

    “We almost didn’t make it in,” one of Diarrhea Planet’s four guitarists said midway through their furious Friday set. “Sleeping in, hungover.” And, yeah, 12:45 in the afternoon probably is pretty early for the noted party band, who’ve built up a fervent cult following in no small part due to their notoriously rowdy live shows. And though songs like “Life Pass” and “Bob Dylan’s Grandma” totally ripped, the early set and 30-minute runtime felt constraining, with the band having to dial down their onstage antics and stage banter (“Sorry we’re being terse,” one member apologized). The muddled sound mix didn’t help, either; it wasn’t until about halfway through the show that the band’s four guitarists began to individually emerge from the morass, Still, a seismic joy arose amongst the crowd during “Separations”, when the band launched themselves into the crowd, pinwheeled with abandon, and nailed a few signature dance moves. That’s the band we came to see. –Randall Colburn


    Best (Drummer-Fronted) Super-Cover-Group

    Chevy Metal

    Going on just ahead of the San Francisco cover goofs Me First and the Gimme Gimmes one stage over, Taylor Hawkins’ nostalgic passion project Chevy Metal kicked off 45 minutes of cover songs for Douglas Park — its own set comprising nothing but ‘70s-era hard rock staples, as always. Hawkins, his band (which featured fellow Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett), and his outrageously wind-sensitive hair ripped through nearly a dozen hits like the “wedding band on crack” they professed to be. They glided through Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, The Faces’ “Stay with Me”, and to close out, with help from Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” and Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down”. –Steven Arroyo


    Wrinkles, Veins and Blood

    It’s GWAR for the Course

    Why does Riot Fest keep booking GWAR, who’ve been on the lineup for four years straight now? As I watch rows of screaming fans get sprayed with (fake) blood squirting from frontman Blothar’s flaccid udder, a decrepit Bernie Sanders puppet ride onstage on what appears to be a troll walking on its hands, an onstage disembowelment, and an impressive sing-along to the 1990 single and set closer “Sick of You”, the answer comes to me: GWAR are great, fucking hilarious, and a perfect act for Riot Fest’s carnivalesque side. GWAR at Riot Fest 2017. Let’s go. –Karen Gwee
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    Partying and Patriotism

    Andrew W.K.

    By now, Andrew W.K. is the patron saint of Riot Fest, the crusty arcangel of this particular corner of heaven. “I’ve officially lost count,” W.K. said as he pondered how many times he’s played the festival, tossing the question into the ether as he and his band of cock-rockin’ merrymakers launched into another one of his signature party-starting anthems. As usual, they did exactly what they set out to do, which is get blood and fists pumping in equal measure. What I love about Andrew W.K. is exactly what I love about professional wrestling: everything we’re watching — the body-slamming theatrics — is scripted, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Andrew W.K. exists to make people happy, and his particular brand of piano-flanked hair metal never fails in that department. Kudos also to his Hendrix-aping “Star-Spangled Banner” on the electric axe, which he segued into the uplifting “She Is Beautiful”. That’s my kind of patriotism, people. –Randall Colburn


    Let’s Do The Time Warp

    The Hives

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    For those who were unfortunate enough to grow up as a teenager in the late ’90s and early aughts, The Hives on Saturday afternoon at the Rock Stage probably came off as an absolute delight. Remember the Rock ‘N’ Roll Renaissance that lasted, what, two months back in 2002? That short window when The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Vines were all lumped together as the would-be saviors of mainstream music? Laugh all you want, but this writer worshiped that era, embracing it as a short gasp of vindication after slumming through four years of miserable garbage, thanks to The TRL Generation.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    But that was in the past and The Hives … well, they’re still doing their thing. Unfortunately for them, the Swedish rockers aren’t nearly as celebrated as their peers these days, but hey, they still got a leg up on The Vines — and they drew a sizable crowd. Frontman Pelle Almqvist, who now looks less like Jagger and more like Iggy, took advantage of this and paraded about like a rabid animal, climbing up the stage’s struts and hurling himself in the crowd during cuts off Veni Vidi Vicious and other select hits. Did you also forget about “Walk Idiot Walk”? Or “Tick Tick Boom”? Thought so; they still rip. –Michael Roffman
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    Best Classics, Delivered Well

    Nas

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    Nas has always carried himself with a gravitas beyond many of his contemporaries. It’s not as though the rapper/producer/all-around mogul doesn’t have an empire of his own at this point, but it’s a more modest one and one that’s positioned the 43-year-old as the antithesis of the “other rappers” in the game.

    His closing set on Saturday drew a notable crowd even before Morrissey’s delay began, and fans hardly walked off disappointed. Nas’ career has lent itself to exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing festival performance that festival attendees were probably looking for: a tight hour of hits without too much fluff or performative fuss.

    RIOT FEST 2016

    Photo by Debi Del Grande

    That said, it was also remarkably similar to the festival shows he’s been playing for a few years now; there weren’t any surprises to be found, and the notable majority of his setlist drew on Illmatic material. But then, given the pop of the crowd every single time one of those iconic introductions kicked in, it’s clear that few in attendance minded.

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    Though the tight, live drumming was drowned out somewhat in the overall mix, Nas put on a mercifully engaging hour at a point in his run where he could come out and play the exact same setlist, with less effort, and still probably draw a house. But if he’s going to declare himself as one of the true gatekeepers of the genre, upholding the value of bar-for-bar rap shows is just part of the job. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Underrated Pioneers

    Smoking Popes

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    The only people under 30 at Smoking Popes’ Saturday afternoon set were being pushed in strollers by their tattooed parents. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it is indicative of how their music, despite its influence on pop-punk, hasn’t persevered into the modern age. That made flannel-clad rockers like “Rubella” and “Megan” a welcome addition to Riot Fest’s nostalgia buffet; these are songs most of us legit haven’t heard in 15 years. Immediately following the Popes’ set was Motion City Soundtrack’s second-to-last show ever, and this juxtaposition really helped hammer home for me just how much of Josh Caterer’s crooning, sensitive vocals can be heard in MCS and other bands that followed. Theirs is a quiet influence, but a notable one. –Randall Colburn
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    Simply Words and Guitar

    Sleater-Kinney

    With Rob Zombie blaring next door and people bleeding out of the crowd to get ready for Misfits, Sleater-Kinney were in a rough spot. But the rock ‘n’ trio got onstage and did their jobs with little fanfare and zero song introductions, keeping the (frustratingly lukewarm) crowd on their toes. They jumped between albums and career points, never announcing when they were playing songs off last year’s No Cities To Love, unbeholden to the marketing instinct that directs artists touring new material. Corin Tucker, who’d been on a panel about sexism and safe spaces in live music the day before, gave props to Riot Fest’s no-tolerance policy against harassment and called for everyone to have each other’s backs. Otherwise, Sleater-Kinney kept to themselves, eliciting the most cheers from the audience when Tucker and Carrie Brownstein turned to rock out with each other. –Karen Gwee


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